Monday, April 29, 2013

Au Gratin Potatoes My Way

My dad is a meat and potatoes kind of man. Every meal we had offered some kind of meat. Almost every meal had potatoes in some form. Even though I grew up in one of the largest rice-producing counties in the nation, I did not begin to eat rice regularly or appreciate it until I was nearly forty and had moved away from that county. Even though I grew up with them at nearly every meal, I rarely eat potatoes. As a result, most of the “fresh” potatoes I purchase at the grocery store go bad before I get around to using them.

Such was the result with some baking potatoes I purchased a while back (6-8 weeks). I do like baked potatoes because by the time I am done adding butter, sour cream, cheese, bacon, chives, garlic, etc. etc. etc. the potato is almost indistinguishable.  Even though I do like baked potatoes, these had begun to shrivel and future potato plants began to shoot from the various eyes. I almost threw them away, but reference to au gratin potatoes in a recent cooking show prompted me to get creative with old potatoes.

Most of my memories of potatoes au gratin were ones that came from a box.

That’s what I get for growing up in the 1970’s.

I decided to pretend I was on a slow-motion version of Chopped and make a good homemade version of au gratin potatoes from scratch with the ingredients I had on hand.

First, I peeled the potatoes removing the shriveling skin and the growths emanating from each eye.

Then I soaked them in a salt water bring. (In this case for a day because I was busy and did not get back to them). The salt water helped to get flavor into the potato and they firmed back up to about 90% of fresh potato rigidity.

I rinsed each potato. Then using my mandolin adjusted to the thinnest slice possible (in the future I will use the middle setting) I sliced the potatoes and let them soak in a fresh, warm, salt-water bath for a few hours.

During the times the potatoes were soaking and regaining their turgor, I searched online for various au gratin recipes. Combining the various recipes I settled on a sauce that agreed with my taste (and what I keep on hand):

1.5 C half-and-half
Garlic powder
Onion powder
Cayenne pepper powder
Diced garlic
1 TBS flour

Cheese (in this case Monterey Jack)

As I put the dish together, I began by coating the pan with olive oil. I used a 2-quart casserole (but in the future will go with a larger, shallower pan – took too long to cook through and I was hungry). I layered in a couple layers of potatoes (they were potato-chip thin), then spooned a coating of the sauce. I repeated three times then sprinkled a layer of cheese.

I continued the process until I used all the potatoes. I poured all remaining sauce on top (it soaked through and filled the empty spaces).

Oh – no cheese on top yet.

I covered the pan (a lid or aluminum foil – whichever work best) and cooked it for four hours at 250 degrees (the reason I am using a shallower pan next time). Once the potatoes were done through, I uncovered the pan to get a layer of crisp on the top. As soon as the potatoes were well-browned, I added a healthy layer of grated cheese. Put the pan back in until the cheese is melted and starting to brown.


Making au gratin potatoes takes a bit more time and effort than I put into most dishes that come from my kitchen, but for these results, it is all worth it.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Seasons of Life

I am tired of people dying.

Fourteen deaths of people I knew well in the space of a year has taken its toll on me.

I do not want to be around anyone right now.

I am tired of living in many different stages of grief simultaneously.

Of course I am certain that most of those I know who died were much less ready to die than I was to grieve their deaths.

The flood of frustration at how much grief has driven my emotions the last year spilled over upon receiving word recently that a wonderful former co-worker had reached the final hours of her life after a lengthy battle with cancer. She, like another co-worker who died this year, was much too young.

I have never been one to display grief. I am comfortable enough with life and death that I found being with people as they took their last breath a beautiful and holy experience.  My year working for a hospice was a great experience as I learned that dying was not an unbearable experience; rather it was a very full time spent completing life. After being in the presence of people in their last hours, I do not fear death and I have long demonstrated a quick recovery from grief at any loss.

It took me a year to realize it, but since the death of a childhood friend’s father last year, I have been in grief though I fought hard to deny it. I have shaped myself as the caregiver not the caregiven. I finally mentioned it to a co-worker who also has a mental health background and her response was, “ You need a week away from people.” I laughed because that is exactly what I planned to do over spring break until I hurt my back. I did spend three days on my back recovering from the injury, but it was not the kind of isolation I needed to have to process the grief issues I was contemplating.

Since hiding from people for  a week is not really an option, I am seeking some other ways to deal with it.  The nature of my job, especially this time of year, requires more than a 40-hour week - and as it is nearing the end of the school year, the workload increases even more.

I have to accept the realization that I have entered a season of my life in which I will face the death of many of the “adults” I knew growing up. I cannot change that, but I can change to a more healthy response to the grief that is coming. Each of the fourteen people who died in the last year, influenced me and many others around me. There is not one thing I can do to work through the grief, but there is something I can do in respect of their influence. I just have to spend the time deciding what to do for each.